New York state lawmakers and parent advocates gathered at a school district in Orange County Wednesday to promote a bill to ensure all students with disabilities participate in high school graduation ceremonies.
Zachary Lerman participated in his graduation ceremony last year at Washingtonville High School after he and his family approached school administrators. Here’s his father Steven Lerman.
“And we believe that no family should be denied what should be one of the best days in their lives, and that is watching their child walk up on that stage, be presented with a certificate or a diploma, shaking all the appropriate hands and celebrating that later on,” Lerman says. “And, for that reason, we fully, fully agree that Zachary’s Law should be the law of New York state and hope very soon that it will be.”
Brian Connolly is principal of Washingtonville High School.
“The students have worked hard for this,” says Connolly. “And we’re not a school that defines success in one specific way.”
Stacey Orzell is a mental health advocate. She thanked Zachary Lerman.
“As the starfish poem says, one person can make a difference and you’re, like a starfish on the beach, making a difference. And you will pave the path that will be better for my son and others in our community,” Orzell says. “So you’re wonderful for stepping forward. I’m very proud of you Zach.”
Orzell is also the mother of a son on the autism spectrum, Eric, who starts fifth grade next year.
“I want him to march in the parade on Graduation Day at the famous Goshen Historic Track with his classmates, as an equal, in 2025, on time,” says Orzell.
Democratic Assemblyman James Skoufis says the Lerman family came to him last year about the issue. What followed was crafting the bill called Zachary’s Law, which he announced at Washingtonville High School.
“It states that every school district must develop a policy that would enable students with disabilities who have specifically earned either a Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential or a Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential to be able to participate in the graduation ceremony with their classmates, with their friends, simple as that,” Skoufis says. “They would continue high school, if they so choose, but to participate in this ceremony is an important moment.”
Republican Bill Larkin sponsors the bill in the Senate. He says students with disabilities should not miss out on Graduation Day, no matter where they attend school.
“This is not a Washingtonville High School, this is not an Orange County, this is not New York, this is our nation, and we should be very, very thoughtful of what we’re doing and, most importantly, what we’re not doing,” Larkin says. “So why shouldn’t he be able to walk across with his students?”
Democratic Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, from the Capital Region, is chair of the Subcommittee on Autism Spectrum Disorders and co-sponsor of the bill.
“The message is very simple. On Graduation Day, those students with disabilities must not be left out,” Santabarbara says.
Santabarbara says the bill is part of his Autism Action legislation package.
“My son Michael was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. He’s 15 years old now and I would hate to see him not be able to go to a ceremony with the people he has gotten to know,” says Santabarbara. “And you know, for my son, he doesn’t talk very much, he doesn’t speak a lot. It’s very hard for him to make friends.”
“Washingtonville did the right thing,” Skoufis says. “The matter of fact is, though, that there are many school districts that are not doing the right thing, that are putting up roadblocks, that are actually preventing these students from being able to participate in this wonderful day.”
Larkin says the bill is on a priority list for discussion Monday.